Cup Series

How Dale Earnhardt's death sparked NASCAR's safety revolution

February 18

By Bob Pockrass
FOX Sports NASCAR Reporter

Richard Petty nearly fell out of his car when it flipped during a 1970 accident at Darlington Raceway.

The NASCAR industry's response: Petty’s mother cut an old fire suit into squares and created a window net to protect her son.

Thirty years later, Petty’s grandson, Adam, died when his throttle apparently hung and he hit the concrete wall at New Hampshire Motor Speedway. Although the Petty Enterprises shop toiled over what changes to make to prevent future crashes, the racing team never thought to consult experts from outside its small, North Carolina home base of Level Cross.

Adam Petty’s accident marked the first of three deaths over a six-month span in 2000, after which NASCAR began exploring ways to improve driver protection. Meanwhile, the sport primarily continued to race, stuck several years behind the science of safety. Its belts and seats trailed the best technology available, it didn’t champion head-and-neck restraints, and plans to replace concrete track walls with energy-absorbing alternatives had been discussed but not yet implemented.

"Up until that point, when somebody had an accident and it took their life ... you just thought, That could happen to anybody, but it’s not going to happen to me,'" said Dale Earnhardt Jr., who retired from full-time racing in 2017. "You just went to the next race and ran the next lap."

Then, Earnhardt’s father — The Intimidator, the seven-time Cup champion considered indestructible by his peers — died on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001. The wreck didn’t even seem violent enough to kill.

The day NASCAR lost Dale Earnhardt — February 18, 2001 — will forever loom as the day the NASCAR culture changed.

In the 11 years preceding Earnhardt’s death, nine drivers died during NASCAR national series races. In the two decades since, the sport remarkably has not suffered a single driver fatality at a major NASCAR race. Zero deaths in 20 years, despite horrific accidents such as Ryan Newman’s crash in the 2020 Daytona 500.

What changed? Nearly everything about NASCAR’s and its drivers’ approach to safety. Why? Because the sport’s Superman died.

Before then, racers viewed the perils of competition as tragic yet somewhat inevitable. "I witnessed more death than I can count on my fingers and toes," said Kyle Petty, son of Richard and father to Adam. "You knew it was always there. ...

"But once the sport really begins to take off and people are paying attention to it ... you can’t afford to lose a Dale Earnhardt. You just can’t. And the sport dang sure can’t afford to lose a Jeff Gordon or a Tony Stewart after that."

In response to Earnhardt’s death, NASCAR spearheaded a driver safety overhaul that experts estimate has saved dozens of lives over the past two decades, based on the sport’s pre-2001 fatality rates. The organization sought out academics and manufacturers for design and engineering help. It created a research and development center with a mission to improve safety. 

"When it happened to dad, everybody said if it happened to him, then it made everybody face how delicate their situation could be," Earnhardt Jr. said. "From the industry down to the bottom, everybody started to look into how to be better prepared, and it worked."

While many new ideas still met resistance over the months and years to come, NASCAR would implement numerous safety enhancements. The organization began requiring drivers to wear devices that prevented their heads from whipping during accidents. It mandated the use of belts that don’t adjust at the lap and connect near the groin to provide greater stability. It standardized the use of carbon-fiber seats that provided greater protection and seat-mounting systems that left more space between drivers and the door. NASCAR race tracks installed steel-and-foam barriers more forgiving than concrete walls.

But NASCAR couldn’t enact those reforms if drivers didn’t buy in — and that required a change in the sport’s deeply ingrained norms.  

"NASCAR DIDN'T WANT THAT TO HAPPEN AGAIN"

It took a transformational event such as Earnhardt’s death to challenge stubborn drivers’ long-held bravado toward safety. Former driver Ricky Craven said that prior to that afternoon at Daytona, NASCAR fatalities would make him briefly question whether he should continue racing, but that his answer always came down to "competing is more important than acknowledging the risk."

Not even the two times Craven left race tracks in a medical helicopter after hard wrecks — including a frightening crash at Talladega, where his vehicle flipped wildly into the fence and then got hit by another car — had done much to make him reconsider his commitment to the sport. But Earnhardt’s death changed him in a troubling way.

"We lost an icon," Craven said. "But it was far more complex than that. For the first time, I’m having to explain to my wife that, ‘Yes, it’s still worth it,’ and to my mom, my dad, my sister and my children.

"To put it very plain and simple, I said to myself, ' ... If Dale Earnhardt could die in a race car, we’re f-----.’ That’s as clear as I can say it."

Earnhardt carried an unprecedented stature in the sport. The working-class fans worshipped the son of a mill worker. He had the ear of NASCAR leadership. He possessed brilliant marketing instincts, developing a fierce and fearless persona that drove NASCAR’s merchandise sales.

Most of all, he won, especially at Daytona. Earnhardt, NASCAR’s eighth-winningest driver of all time, treated Daytona as his playground, winning a record 34 races there across various series.

"There was a monetary value that Dad brought to the sport and a fan base that followed him everywhere," Earnhardt Jr. said. "There’s a lot of fans that ain’t quite recovered from that loss. NASCAR didn’t want that to happen again."

After Earnhardt’s death, talks about improving driver safety that had started the previous year turned into action.  

"It wasn’t like prior to that, everybody was saying there was no problem," four-time Cup champion Jeff Gordon said. 

"It was, let’s do the math, let’s do the science, let’s think through this and not just make a knee-jerk reaction. Enough of the homework had been done that when Dale’s accident happened, we had some things in the works, and we needed to implement them right away."

THE RACER MENTALITY

In NASCAR’s early days, the industry viewed accidents as a mechanical problem to fix, not an existential crisis. Teams just repaired the parts of their cars they suspected had broken or malfunctioned.

Drivers — a group no one would describe as risk-averse — believed they knew best for racing, and NASCAR’s insular culture discouraged inviting outsiders to propose ways to improve the sport.

"People from the rural South, when they needed something, did they go to the store and buy it?" Petty said. "Ninety-nine percent of them figured out a way to make it at home.

"That’s always been the racer mentality: I can do it better. We can figure out a way."

And despite the death-defying nature of their sport, most drivers didn’t push for safer vehicles because they already felt, well, safe.

"It takes my breath to look at the stuff that I drove in the early ‘90s compared to what’s out there right now," Petty said. "But when we crawled in, we felt safe. I felt safe. There had been fatalities, but I felt safe in our cars because we built them."

Petty felt secure because his family worked on the cars and they did their best to protect their own.  

Gordon said that drivers typically viewed track safety as NASCAR’s responsibility, while vehicle safety fell to the province of the drivers and their teams.

Gary Nelson, who worked as NASCAR’s Cup Series director and then its head of research and development throughout much of the 1990s and 2000s, said the sport’s reluctance to accept outside advice came down to two factors. 

First, racing teams had seen too many so-called engineers showing up at garages with ideas for how to make cars run faster. Those ideas almost never worked, so drivers had little reason to trust the outsiders marching into their shops to promote the use of elaborate neck harnesses. Secrecy among competitors was also a concern, with racing teams reluctant to show visitors any aspect of their design that might benefit rivals. 

"When I went to work for NASCAR," said Nelson, a former successful crew chief before joining the company, "I still had this mentality that we build the cars, we wreck the cars, we evaluate the cars, and we make the cars better — all within the community. 

"When we lost Adam Petty and Kenny Irwin and others, we started thinking maybe there is somebody who can help us."

A DIFFERENT WAY OF ANALYZING PROBLEMS

Once Earnhardt died, NASCAR dropped its closed-off culture and flung open its doors to new ideas about driver safety.

"An incident like this happens, and everyone reaches out with different ideas," NASCAR Executive Vice President Steve O’Donnell said. "It opens other avenues for the sport to try new technologies as well."

NASCAR commissioned an outside investigation into Earnhardt’s death, an investigation led by Dr. James Raddin of the Biodynamic Research Corporation and Dr. Dean Sicking of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s Mid-America Transportation Center.

Sicking had overseen the development of roadway barriers that saved thousands of lives on the highway. He had also worked with the Indianapolis Motor Speedway to replace the race track’s concrete perimeter wall with SAFER (steel-and-foam energy-reduction) Barriers.

"When my team was reconstructing that crash, the NASCAR folks realized how much experience we had designing barriers," Sicking said.

"By that time, I had been doing it for 20 years. My team had been working together for 10 years. And we were trying to solve the problems, if they would listen to us and let us go at it."

The science indicated the barriers, while better than concrete walls, would reduce injury 25 percent of the time. About 65 percent of the time, it came down to seats, belts and head-and-neck restraint systems.

Raddin, a belt-and-restraint specialist and former Air Force pilot, had tested crashes with himself in a car wearing an F-111 pilot’s harness. 

"I was doing tests at 10 or 12 Gs, and I would have accelerometers, and we were measuring peak accelerations of 25 to 30 Gs in a 10 G crash," Raddin said. "When you put on a head-and-neck restraint, you had a significant benefit.

"I could sit down and could show the drivers, [from] the standpoint of having gone through crashes just as they had," he continued. "It produced advocates within the drivers."

Raddin made several trips to North Carolina to examine Earnhardt’s car. Steve Peterson, NASCAR’s safety director, would join Raddin on these visits to observe how experts from outside the racing industry conducted crash investigations.

"Steve would be right with me and seemed to be fascinated with the approach that I took in discovering marks in the car, abrasions," Raddin said. "They adopted a lot of the approach I would take looking at the car afterwards."

Raddin’s method taught Nelson to focus on three primary risk factors: intrusion, fire, and sudden stops. 

"He brought us a lot of technology," Nelson said. "But the biggest thing he brought to us was a different way of analyzing the problems. ... Things aren’t just freak accidents. There are a series of events that lead up to that."

"I HAD NO IDEA THAT MY HEAD COULD REACH THE STEERING WHEEL"

Thanks to Raddin and Sicking’s investigation, NASCAR began to fully understand the linked causes of Earnhardt’s death and the researchers’ proposals for improved safety measures. But drivers still needed convincing, and the use of imagery proved as NASCAR’s greatest tool in persuading them.

NASCAR spent $250,000 to study belt systems and filmed more than a dozen crash tests. Petty’s team donated cars, and former General Motors Racing safety expert and influential safety advocate Dr. John Melvin drove from Detroit to Nebraska with a crash test dummy to use in the trials.

In the summer after Earnhardt’s death, before NASCAR released the investigation to the public, NASCAR showed drivers video of crash tests with dummies, plus in-car camera footage of actual racing wrecks that demonstrated how much the head moved inside the car.

"I had no idea that my head could reach the steering wheel," Earnhardt Jr. said. "I thought I was strapped in there, there’s no way I can get there. When you see it with your own eyes, you can’t argue with it."

Craven said watching that footage made him think about the hard wrecks he’d survived.

"You would have a crack in your helmet, and you would say, how is that possible?" Craven said. "After seeing these videos and seeing how we were coming out of the seats and how the belts were stretching and how the helmets hit the steering wheel and [how] even worse, in a 45 G impact, the helmet could hit the dashboard — it’s crazy."

Still, it would take time and consistent effort to alter the sport’s daredevil culture. NASCAR began conducting annual safety workshops with drivers, where presenters such as Tom Gideon, who worked as GM Racing’s safety manager in the late ‘90s and 2000s, would outline the results of crash research and encourage drivers to adopt protective measures. 

"You feel like you’re preaching in church and everybody is nodding their heads, and then they leave church and go back to their ways," Gideon said. "The problem with race-car drivers is they’re not going to be the one who gets hurt — that’s not in their mind. Someone else might get hurt and that’s too bad … but that’s not going to happen to me. You have to have that attitude. You wouldn’t go very fast if you thought this is going to hurt you."

But Gideon and NASCAR kept preaching. They followed up with doubters and flew in experts such as Raddin to meet with drivers one-on-one and coax them into embracing pro-safety innovations.

"NO WAY AM I WEARING THAT"

One source of resistance came from drivers who had already tried new ideas, such as the HANS Device — and gave it mixed reviews.

Developed in the 1980s, the device consists of a shoulder harness that clips to the driver’s helmet to stabilize the neck and reduce whiplash during crashes. Petty said he first tried driving with a HANS in 1992.

"It was a huge device," he said. "If you see a picture of Queen Victoria with the thing all the way around her neck, that’s what the old original collar looked like.

"You just about couldn’t get in and out of a car with it. I tried it for a few races — not comfortable. The ability for it to work just was not going to be there with the seat that we had."

Over the years leading up to Earnhardt’s death, as race cars got faster and a little stiffer, skull fractures at the base of the neck were an increasingly common cause of driver fatalities. These injuries from a type of neck whip motion were the exact ones the HANS Device could prevent.

To combat the trend, safety consultants such as Gideon would visit racing teams’ garages, handing HANS Devices to as many drivers as they could find. Mike Skinner, a Dale Earnhardt Inc. driver, was among the seven drivers (including Kyle Petty) who raced with a head-and-neck restraint on the day of Earnhardt’s death in 2001.

"I got a lot of people in them even before the sanctioning body made a rule of it," Gideon said. "I would approach and say, ‘You’ve got to try it,’ and the driver might have had a few years in the seat and a bunch of bad accidents, and he would turn around and knock on wood: ‘I’m here. I’m talking to you. I’ve been in a lot of bad ones and I’m going to be OK.’"

Kurt Busch, a rookie in 2001, wore the HANS Device at that year’s Daytona 500.

"I remember walking through the garage, and this salesman came up to me and said, ‘Here, try this device on,’" Busch said. "I put it on for a practice session. It was bulky, it was a little awkward. I could see the effort behind it. As a rookie, I said, you know what? I hope I’m around here for a long while. I’m going to implement this into my safety procedures for all of my racing gear."

Gordon remembered fellow driver and safety influencer Brett Bodine, who wore a HANS Device at Daytona in 2001, encouraging him to follow suit.  

"I put it around my neck and I was like, no way am I wearing that" Gordon said. "I may have tried it in the car for a couple of laps. It was hitting my collarbone. I didn’t think I could race like that."

When Earnhardt died, Gordon realized he had no choice but to use the restraints, so he worked on acquiring a HANS molded and shaped to fit his body. Two weeks after Earnhardt’s death and seven months before NASCAR mandated its use, Gordon began wearing the device in races.  

Years later, he believes it saved his life.

"That Las Vegas wreck [in 2008]," Gordon said. "I know for a fact that a HANS Device saved my life that day. Because everything else in my body moved and stretched and was so incredibly sore in the days following. I don’t think that my head with that helmet on it, that I could have survived without holding it back with a HANS."

Despite initial resistance to the cumbersome device, it didn’t take long for drivers to accept the HANS after Earnhardt’s crash. NASCAR began requiring its use in October 2001, but most drivers didn’t wait that long to start using them. During a race at Daytona that July, all but six competitors wore head-and-neck restraints, months before NASCAR’s mandate became official.

SOFT WALLS

It took another year and a scary crash for the sport to embrace SAFER Barrier walls.

In 2002, when Busch slammed into a SAFER Barrier during a race in Indianapolis, his survival convinced NASCAR of the benefits of the "soft wall."

After the collision, Busch popped right out of his car and gestured at the driver who wrecked him. While many people recall Busch’s angry reaction that day, Sicking remembers the call he received from NASCAR Chairman Bill France Jr.’s assistant, summoning him to the organization’s Daytona headquarters.

When they met the following week, Sicking and France discussed hurdles to the installation of SAFER Barriers. At some tracks, adding the thick layer of foam and steel the barriers needed would cut into the racing groove. In a sport where racers maneuver through every available inch of track to make dazzling passes, drivers and track officials viewed reducing surface area to install SAFER Barriers as a considerable concession for the cause of driver safety. 

But the winds of change howled. By the end of 2003, NASCAR announced that all tracks would have to create plans and begin installing the barriers in the following year.

At a cost of $500-600 per linear foot, NASCAR directed tracks to first install the steel and foam barriers in the turns, where most accidents occur. Over time, they figured, tracks would complete the installation on straightaways and inside walls, but those plans paused when the Great Recession hit in 2008. It took a Kyle Busch crash at Daytona in 2015, where he broke his left foot and right leg, to create the sense of urgency needed to finish adding SAFER Barriers at all ovals.

Another step toward driver safety came in 2007 with the introduction of new standards for NASCAR vehicles. The updated design moved the driver’s seat closer to the center of the car, with foam padding added to the door area between the sheet metal and the driver’s cage. Moving the seat had been one of Raddin’s strongest recommendations.

Seats (a move to carbon fiber) and belt systems also improved. NASCAR mandated a five-point belt in 1993, then a six-point strap in 2007, and finally a seven-point model in 2015. Beginning in 2001, NASCAR required all belts to be installed as specified by SFI, a foundation that oversees safety standards in motorsports. 

After many years of decentralized control, NASCAR took an integrated and regulated approach to making the sport as safe as possible.

"YOU'VE GOT TO MANDATE THOSE THINGS"

NASCAR’s success in preventing driver fatalities over the past 20 years owes much to the organization’s decision to stop leaving drivers in charge of protecting themselves and instead requiring all participants in the sport to follow uniform safety standards. 

Craven didn’t wear a HANS Device in the 2001 Daytona 500. He had tried it in testing the previous month, when his car owner asked him to wear it. But Craven viewed the device as a distraction and feared it would reduce his chances of winning.

"I went to the Daytona 500 not wearing a HANS Device," he said. "And I didn’t wear it the next week and didn’t wear it the next week. When NASCAR mandated it, I said, 'Thank God, because now it’s mandated, so move past it.' "

"You’ve got to mandate those things," added veteran crew chief Alan Gustafson. "I’d like to think that most of them would make a good decision, but that puts the competitors in a tough spot."

Even if a driver wanted a safety enhancement for his car, he didn’t always ask for it, and sometimes that inaction had nothing to do with performance, Earnhardt Jr. said. 

"I was more of a wait until it is mandated kind of guy," said Earnhardt Jr., who didn’t wear a HANS when he won the 2001 July race at Daytona. "I was a bit lazy. But the other side of me — I felt like I was already asking my guys to do too much and I hated to ask them to do more.

"There was always this sort of mentality: Don’t complain about comfort and don’t complain about safety because you didn’t want to be looked at as weak or soft or scared."

Earnhardt Jr.’s father embodied NASCAR’s old-school, tough-as-nails mentality, but Dale Earnhardt had concern about driver safety more than he let on — at least when it came to his son.  

"That winter leading into the 2001 season, he invited me and Steve Peterson to come to Dale Earnhardt Inc., and they were building cars for Dale Earnhardt Jr. to drive," Nelson said. "He was very, very confident if we could do the things he suggested, the sport would be safer. With his son racing the cars his company was building, he felt more invested in the safety side of it than he ever had."

Another critical but unheralded contributor to NASCAR’s safety evolution: Chairman Bill France Jr., often depicted in the press as resistant to change. But according to the NASCAR officials and hired consultants who championed driver safety within the organization, France played a pivotal role behind the scenes.

"I don’t think Bill ever got the credit for the guy pushing all the safety," Nelson said. "If you read the papers in those days, you would think just the opposite. ... He was quite aggressive to us to go out there and find a better way."

Sicking credited France for cutting through red tape that could have delayed the installation of SAFER Barriers. "Getting it deployed wasn’t nearly as much trouble as I was afraid it would be," he said. "Once Bill France Jr. said it’s going to happen, he just made it happen.

"He told them if you don’t have SAFER Barriers when we show up, we’re not going to have a race. The venues had no alternative. There were high-up people who didn’t want to do this, but Bill France shoved it down their throats."

"IT ALLOWED US TO ESCAPE THIS BRAVADO"

"If you told me in 2003 we’d get to 2020 [and] nobody would die in a barrier crash," Sicking said, "I would have said, ‘Did they cancel the sport?' "  

They did not. But one person perished to spark a revolution, and only the toughest racer dying allowed drivers to feel comfortable speaking out for safety improvements.

"I was scared," Craven said, looking back on Earnhardt’s death. "For the first time in my life, I was scared about something I had no control over in the sport I loved.

"One of the things it did is it allowed us to escape from this bravado, where you had to be a tough guy to be a race car driver," he added. "You had to play hurt and you couldn’t show weakness."

But it remains unsettling that one of the sport’s biggest names died in a race-related accident before drivers’ attitudes toward safety changed and before NASCAR felt compelled to mandate life-protecting improvements. Even so, Petty doesn’t own a grudge that his son’s death didn’t inspire the same reforms that Earnhardt’s did, just nine months later.  

"It’s life, man, it’s life," Petty said. "Am I angry because maybe somebody that my mom or dad knew in 1962 died because there wasn’t seat belts in the car? No.

"It’s just not where the world was. It’s just not where technology was. It’s just not where the sport was."

Nelson said when he worked as Cup director, he wouldn’t book late-night flights home after races because he might need to visit drivers in the hospital. Now, thanks to advances made over the past 20 years, those days come few and far between for NASCAR executives.

The sport needed its superhero to die for it to grow, and the one aspect of Earnhardt’s legacy that everybody wishes never happened also goes down in history as the most important mark he left on NASCAR.

"You just never thought that something like that would happen to that type of person," Earnhardt Jr. said. "If you put that sort of gritty individual in any other form of sport, they play through injury and they’re always there and dependable. That is who he was.

"So when he was killed, it was: ‘Wow, why?' "


Get more from Cup Series Add to your favorites to get information about games, news and more.

in this topic

share story